Research Topics & Ideas: Environment
100+ Environmental Science Research Topics & Ideas
Finding and choosing a strong research topic is the critical first step when it comes to crafting a high-quality dissertation, thesis or research project. Here, we’ll explore a variety research ideas and topic thought-starters related to various environmental science disciplines, including ecology, oceanography, hydrology, geology, soil science, environmental chemistry, environmental economics, and environmental ethics.
NB – This is just the start…
The topic ideation and evaluation process has multiple steps . In this post, we’ll kickstart the process by sharing some research topic ideas within the environmental sciences. This is the starting point though. To develop a well-defined research topic, you’ll need to identify a clear and convincing research gap , along with a well-justified plan of action to fill that gap.
If you’re new to the oftentimes perplexing world of research, or if this is your first time undertaking a formal academic research project, be sure to check out our free dissertation mini-course. Also be sure to also sign up for our free webinar that explores how to develop a high-quality research topic from scratch.
Overview: Environmental Topics
- Ecology /ecological science
- Atmospheric science
- Soil science
- Environmental chemistry
- Environmental economics
- Environmental ethics
- Examples of dissertations and theses
Topics & Ideas: Ecological Science
- The impact of land-use change on species diversity and ecosystem functioning in agricultural landscapes
- The role of disturbances such as fire and drought in shaping arid ecosystems
- The impact of climate change on the distribution of migratory marine species
- Investigating the role of mutualistic plant-insect relationships in maintaining ecosystem stability
- The effects of invasive plant species on ecosystem structure and function
- The impact of habitat fragmentation caused by road construction on species diversity and population dynamics in the tropics
- The role of ecosystem services in urban areas and their economic value to a developing nation
- The effectiveness of different grassland restoration techniques in degraded ecosystems
- The impact of land-use change through agriculture and urbanisation on soil microbial communities in a temperate environment
- The role of microbial diversity in ecosystem health and nutrient cycling in an African savannah
Topics & Ideas: Atmospheric Science
- The impact of climate change on atmospheric circulation patterns above tropical rainforests
- The role of atmospheric aerosols in cloud formation and precipitation above cities with high pollution levels
- The impact of agricultural land-use change on global atmospheric composition
- Investigating the role of atmospheric convection in severe weather events in the tropics
- The impact of urbanisation on regional and global atmospheric ozone levels
- The impact of sea surface temperature on atmospheric circulation and tropical cyclones
- The impact of solar flares on the Earth’s atmospheric composition
- The impact of climate change on atmospheric turbulence and air transportation safety
- The impact of stratospheric ozone depletion on atmospheric circulation and climate change
- The role of atmospheric rivers in global water supply and sea-ice formation
Topics & Ideas: Oceanography
- The impact of ocean acidification on kelp forests and biogeochemical cycles
- The role of ocean currents in distributing heat and regulating desert rain
- The impact of carbon monoxide pollution on ocean chemistry and biogeochemical cycles
- Investigating the role of ocean mixing in regulating coastal climates
- The impact of sea level rise on the resource availability of low-income coastal communities
- The impact of ocean warming on the distribution and migration patterns of marine mammals
- The impact of ocean deoxygenation on biogeochemical cycles in the arctic
- The role of ocean-atmosphere interactions in regulating rainfall in arid regions
- The impact of ocean eddies on global ocean circulation and plankton distribution
- The role of ocean-ice interactions in regulating the Earth’s climate and sea level
Tops & Ideas: Hydrology
- The impact of agricultural land-use change on water resources and hydrologic cycles in temperate regions
- The impact of agricultural groundwater availability on irrigation practices in the global south
- The impact of rising sea-surface temperatures on global precipitation patterns and water availability
- Investigating the role of wetlands in regulating water resources for riparian forests
- The impact of tropical ranches on river and stream ecosystems and water quality
- The impact of urbanisation on regional and local hydrologic cycles and water resources for agriculture
- The role of snow cover and mountain hydrology in regulating regional agricultural water resources
- The impact of drought on food security in arid and semi-arid regions
- The role of groundwater recharge in sustaining water resources in arid and semi-arid environments
- The impact of sea level rise on coastal hydrology and the quality of water resources
Topics & Ideas: Geology
- The impact of tectonic activity on the East African rift valley
- The role of mineral deposits in shaping ancient human societies
- The impact of sea-level rise on coastal geomorphology and shoreline evolution
- Investigating the role of erosion in shaping the landscape and impacting desertification
- The impact of mining on soil stability and landslide potential
- The impact of volcanic activity on incoming solar radiation and climate
- The role of geothermal energy in decarbonising the energy mix of megacities
- The impact of Earth’s magnetic field on geological processes and solar wind
- The impact of plate tectonics on the evolution of mammals
- The role of the distribution of mineral resources in shaping human societies and economies, with emphasis on sustainability
Topics & Ideas: Soil Science
- The impact of dam building on soil quality and fertility
- The role of soil organic matter in regulating nutrient cycles in agricultural land
- The impact of climate change on soil erosion and soil organic carbon storage in peatlands
- Investigating the role of above-below-ground interactions in nutrient cycling and soil health
- The impact of deforestation on soil degradation and soil fertility
- The role of soil texture and structure in regulating water and nutrient availability in boreal forests
- The impact of sustainable land management practices on soil health and soil organic matter
- The impact of wetland modification on soil structure and function
- The role of soil-atmosphere exchange and carbon sequestration in regulating regional and global climate
- The impact of salinization on soil health and crop productivity in coastal communities
Topics & Ideas: Environmental Chemistry
- The impact of cobalt mining on water quality and the fate of contaminants in the environment
- The role of atmospheric chemistry in shaping air quality and climate change
- The impact of soil chemistry on nutrient availability and plant growth in wheat monoculture
- Investigating the fate and transport of heavy metal contaminants in the environment
- The impact of climate change on biochemical cycling in tropical rainforests
- The impact of various types of land-use change on biochemical cycling
- The role of soil microbes in mediating contaminant degradation in the environment
- The impact of chemical and oil spills on freshwater and soil chemistry
- The role of atmospheric nitrogen deposition in shaping water and soil chemistry
- The impact of over-irrigation on the cycling and fate of persistent organic pollutants in the environment
Topics & Ideas: Environmental Economics
- The impact of climate change on the economies of developing nations
- The role of market-based mechanisms in promoting sustainable use of forest resources
- The impact of environmental regulations on economic growth and competitiveness
- Investigating the economic benefits and costs of ecosystem services for African countries
- The impact of renewable energy policies on regional and global energy markets
- The role of water markets in promoting sustainable water use in southern Africa
- The impact of land-use change in rural areas on regional and global economies
- The impact of environmental disasters on local and national economies
- The role of green technologies and innovation in shaping the zero-carbon transition and the knock-on effects for local economies
- The impact of environmental and natural resource policies on income distribution and poverty of rural communities
Topics & Ideas: Environmental Ethics
- The ethical foundations of environmentalism and the environmental movement regarding renewable energy
- The role of values and ethics in shaping environmental policy and decision-making in the mining industry
- The impact of cultural and religious beliefs on environmental attitudes and behaviours in first world countries
- Investigating the ethics of biodiversity conservation and the protection of endangered species in palm oil plantations
- The ethical implications of sea-level rise for future generations and vulnerable coastal populations
- The role of ethical considerations in shaping sustainable use of natural forest resources
- The impact of environmental justice on marginalized communities and environmental policies in Asia
- The ethical implications of environmental risks and decision-making under uncertainty
- The role of ethics in shaping the transition to a low-carbon, sustainable future for the construction industry
- The impact of environmental values on consumer behaviour and the marketplace: a case study of the ‘bring your own shopping bag’ policy
Examples: Real Dissertation & Thesis Topics
While the ideas we’ve presented above are a decent starting point for finding a research topic, they are fairly generic and non-specific. So, it helps to look at actual dissertations and theses to see how this all comes together.
Below, we’ve included a selection of research projects from various environmental science-related degree programs to help refine your thinking. These are actual dissertations and theses, written as part of Master’s and PhD-level programs, so they can provide some useful insight as to what a research topic looks like in practice.
- The physiology of microorganisms in enhanced biological phosphorous removal (Saunders, 2014)
- The influence of the coastal front on heavy rainfall events along the east coast (Henson, 2019)
- Forage production and diversification for climate-smart tropical and temperate silvopastures (Dibala, 2019)
- Advancing spectral induced polarization for near surface geophysical characterization (Wang, 2021)
- Assessment of Chromophoric Dissolved Organic Matter and Thamnocephalus platyurus as Tools to Monitor Cyanobacterial Bloom Development and Toxicity (Hipsher, 2019)
- Evaluating the Removal of Microcystin Variants with Powdered Activated Carbon (Juang, 2020)
- The effect of hydrological restoration on nutrient concentrations, macroinvertebrate communities, and amphibian populations in Lake Erie coastal wetlands (Berg, 2019)
- Utilizing hydrologic soil grouping to estimate corn nitrogen rate recommendations (Bean, 2019)
- Fungal Function in House Dust and Dust from the International Space Station (Bope, 2021)
- Assessing Vulnerability and the Potential for Ecosystem-based Adaptation (EbA) in Sudan’s Blue Nile Basin (Mohamed, 2022)
- A Microbial Water Quality Analysis of the Recreational Zones in the Los Angeles River of Elysian Valley, CA (Nguyen, 2019)
- Dry Season Water Quality Study on Three Recreational Sites in the San Gabriel Mountains (Vallejo, 2019)
- Wastewater Treatment Plan for Unix Packaging Adjustment of the Potential Hydrogen (PH) Evaluation of Enzymatic Activity After the Addition of Cycle Disgestase Enzyme (Miessi, 2020)
- Laying the Genetic Foundation for the Conservation of Longhorn Fairy Shrimp (Kyle, 2021).
Looking at these titles, you can probably pick up that the research topics here are quite specific and narrowly-focused , compared to the generic ones presented earlier. To create a top-notch research topic, you will need to be precise and target a specific context with specific variables of interest . In other words, you’ll need to identify a clear, well-justified research gap.
Need more help?
If you’re still feeling a bit unsure about how to find a research topic for your environmental science dissertation or research project, be sure to check out our private coaching services below, as well as our Research Topic Kickstarter .
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The Natural Resources and Earth Systems Science (NRESS) Ph.D. in Earth Systems and Environmental Science (ESSEES) is an interdepartmental program that draws on the university's strengths in environmental and earth sciences, life sciences, social sciences, and ethical and policy studies to increase our understanding of environmental and natural resource challenges and solutions at the local, regional and global scale. Areas of study include, but are not limited to, ecosystem science, biogeochemical cycling, geochemical systems, atmospheric science, environmental philosophy, forestry, geologic science, hydrology, marine science, oceanography, social science, environmental policy and ethics, environmental education, and multidisciplinary natural resources management.
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The graduate program in Natural Resources and Earth Systems Science (NRESS) is an interdepartmental program offering the Ph.D. degree for interdisciplinary work in areas related to the understanding and management of the environment in the broadest context. Areas of study include, but are not limited to, ecosystem science, biogeochemical cycling, geochemical systems, atmospheric science, environmental philosophy, forestry, geologic science, hydrology, marine science, oceanography, social science, environmental policy and ethics, environmental education, and multidisciplinary natural resources management.
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The NRESS Ph.D. in Earth and Environmental Sciences (EES) focuses on problems dealing with the physical, chemical, and/or biological processes that affect earth and environmental systems. Students receiving the Ph.D. degree in EES will typically have a bachelor's and/or master’s degree in biology, ecology, environmental science, geology, hydrology, or microbiology.
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The Ph.D. guidance and dissertation committees must consist of at least five members. The chair must be a member of the NRESS faculty . Three of the five members (including the chair) must be NRESS faculty, and committee members must be from more than one academic department. Students are strongly encouraged to include at least one off-campus member. Off-campus committee members must hold a doctoral (or terminal) degree and be approved by the student's adviser, the NRESS Program, and the Graduate School dean. Students should select the guidance committee in a timely manner, within one year for full-time students and two years for part-time students.
Core Area Course Requirements
All students will take one course in each of four core areas while enrolled in the program: natural sciences, ethics/policy/law, methods, and seminar. Students are also required to take NRES 997, Interdisciplinary Research in Natural Resources and Earth and Environmental Sciences, preferably within the first year of enrollment. Any course used to satisfy the natural sciences, ethics/policy/law, and methods core areas must be a classroom course of at least 3 credits. The seminar course must be interactive and must be at least 1 credit. Independent study courses may not be used to satisfy core requirements. Students must complete a Preliminary Coursework Approval Form, which lists the student's planned coursework, within one year for full-time students and two years for part-time students. A Final Course Approval Form, with signatures from the adviser, committee members, and the NRESS program chair is submitted once the coursework is completed.
Students Entering the Program without a Master's Degree
Students entering the program without a master's degree are expected to complete a minimum of 36 credit hours. There is not a specific credit requirement beyond the required four core courses and NRES 997 for students who have completed a M.S. or M.A. degree in a related field. Students enter the NRESS program with diverse backgrounds and preparation in their desired area of study. Therefore, final credit requirements are determined by the guidance committee and may include additional coursework necessary to enhance the student's selected field of study and/or correct any deficiencies in the student's previous program. Students may apply a maximum of 12 credits of independent study and/or seminar courses to their total course requirement.
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Comprehensive exam (sometimes referred to as the qualifying exam) : The student must prepare an extensive written answer to one question from each committee member that covers the basic concepts and factual material deemed essential for the student’s program. Three weeks are allowed for completion of the exam during which time students are expected to work solely on their answers. Answers are expected to be anywhere from 10 – 20 pages per question with extensive literature citations. Completed written answers are submitted to the adviser who then distributes copies to the other committee members for review. Approximately 1 – 2 weeks are allowed for the committee to read the answers, after which time the student gives an oral presentation to the committee. Following the presentation, committee members will ask for clarification of the student’s answers, if necessary. The committee may require a student to repeat part, or all, of the comprehensive exam if the student’s performance is deemed unsatisfactory. This exam should be taken within three years of initiation of graduate study in the program.
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A clear, concise statement of the applicant’s relevant past experiences including academics, research, and/or work experience. The statement should also include an expression of interests and an explanation of the student’s goals in pursuing a doctoral degree. Applicants must identify in the application personal statement an NRESS PhD Program Faculty member willing to serve as their graduate advisor.
Statements must be included with your submitted application.
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